By Lyndsie Kiebert
The 2019 Bonner County budget was finalized last week, boasting increased salaries in several departments and introducing a 3-percent tax increase.
Going into effect this October, the budget features an overall general budget cut from $59.8 million to $54.2 million, and an EMS budget cut from $4 million to $3.7 million. Last year, over $8 million was cut from the previous budget.
“Once again for this next budget we created over $3 million in cuts in an effort to push the budget back down to where it meets revenues,” Commissioner Dan McDonald said. “Our figures show us we will have one more year of cuts before we reach a balance to revenues.”
McDonald said a “wage study and market pressures dictate the various salary adjustments.”
That wage study, done by AmeriBen Consulting out of Boise and commissioned by the Bonner County Human Resource department in spring 2015, was requested in order to create an “updated compensation methodology,” according to HR Risk Management Director Cindy Binkerd. She said the last time the county had conducted a salary study prior to 2015 was 2001.
The AmeriBen study was completed in November 2015, so changes to salaries were not implemented until the 2016 fiscal year’s budget. Binkerd said it was projected at the time that it would take the county approximately three years to “reconcile salary gaps” in comparison to other counties, and McDonald said the county is on track to meet the three-year deadline.
Despite difficulty balancing the budget this year, McDonald said “we’re not going to balance the budget on the backs of employees” — meaning salaries would continue to increase in accordance to the AmeriBen study.
On average, county employees saw a 3-percent merit salary increase, with variations depending on market adjustments and compression, McDonald said. Road and Bridge, Planning and EMS “had a total of 18-percent increases over last year” McDonald said, and commissioners saw a 7-percent salary increase in the new budget.
“Elected officials salaries were increased, I believe, by $10,000 a year the year before I came into office, as the wage study showed a huge gap in the salary position compared with other counties our same size,” McDonald said. “We made a small move last year to try and correct but it was still short and actually caused us to fall further behind.”
Road and Bridge, Planning and EMS saw salary increases in an effort to keep wages competitive and keep good personnel with the county. Losing good employees was a recurring issue, McDonald said, especially with operators in Road and Bridge.
McDonald emphasized that the county avoided cutting services while creating the new budget. In making that decision, the commissioners chose to take the 3-percent tax increase allotted by the state per year.
“The fact is that we had two options: either cut services — which will really make people scream — or take the three percent,” McDonald said. “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t take it, but then what are we going to cut?”
McDonald said going forward the commissioners plan to work with department heads more closely and on a regular basis to control spending.
Steve Lockwood, the Democratic candidate for the District 3 commissioner seat in the upcoming November election, has been following the budget workshops closely.
“Last year they did lower the budget, but not expenses,” Lockwood said. “They should control costs through the year, and they have not done that consistently.”
Find further analysis of the 2019 Bonner County budget in next week’s Sandpoint Reader.